Egypt's Shame

Why Violence Against Women Has Soared After Mubarak

A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, July 2013. (Asmaa Waguih / Courtesy Reuters)

In late November 2013, Egyptian police rounded up 14 female activists in downtown Cairo, including three prominent women who had helped lead the first protests against former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. Three years later, the women were still at it, now protesting military trials against civilians and a draconian new law banning public demonstrations without a permit. Following the arrests, the women allege, they were detained for several hours by the police, beaten and sexually abused, and then dumped in the desert outside the city.

The ordeal was the latest episode in an appalling season of violence against women in Egypt. Although mob attacks have been taking place since at least 2005, many Egyptian women say that sexual harassment and assault have worsened in both frequency and severity following the 2011 revolution. Women attending large protests have been gang raped and attacked with sharp instruments, often in what appear to be coordinated assaults on women in large crowds. Cairo-based nongovernmental organizations such as the New Woman Foundation and El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture provide direct support to the victims of such attacks. But many women are either too afraid or unwilling to come forward to speak about their experiences. A recent poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation named Egypt the worst place for women to live in the Arab world.

Rising harassment and violence against women in Egypt reflect both long-term trends in government policy and more recent shifts during the country's seesawing post-Mubarak transition. Since the 1970s and 1980s, the Egyptian state has increasingly treated women as second-class citizens. A 1980 amendment to Egypt’s 1971 constitution, passed under President Anwar Sadat, established “principles of Islamic law” as “the principal source of legislation.” The constitution privileged a woman’s “duties toward her family” and her role within Islamic jurisprudence. Women also faced harsher legal penalties for committing adultery. The constitution expressed broader social shifts in Egypt toward religious conservatism, which included attempts by the state to control women and sexual mores.

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